Saturday Series: 1 John 2:18-27

1 John 2:18-27

In the previous two studies, we examined the conflict that is at the heart of 2 John, and how it shaped the author’s treatment of the Johannine theology. In particular the key Johannine theme, of the two-fold duty (entol¢¡) required of every true believer—trust and love—is expounded and applied in relation to the conflict surrounding the “antichrist” opponents (v. 7). A genuine trust in Jesus Christ is defined in terms of the opponents’ Christology (and their false trust, vv. 7-9ff), while love for one’s fellow believers involves protecting them from the opponents’ influence (see vv. 10-11).

The same conflict is present in 1 John. This is clear from the similarity in wording between 2 John 7 and 1 John 4:3. The author of 1 John (if he is not the same person who penned 2 John) provides a more extensive and developed treatment of the conflict involving the opponents, whom he also calls antíchristos (antichrist). The central section, or division, of 1 John is 2:28-3:24. In this section, the author offers a presentation of what it means to be a true believer. By contrast, in the flanking sections (2:18-27 & 4:1-6), the focus is on the false believer. The principal theme of the treatise is the contrast between the true and false believer; the opponents are identified as false believers, while, in the author’s rhetorical strategy, his audience is essentially treated as true believers. This approach serves the purpose of both exhorting and warning Johannine Christians to remain faithful to the truth, in the face of the danger posed by the ‘antichrist’ opponents.

At various points throughout 1 John, we can see how this conflict has shaped the Johannine discourse. Various teachings and traditions, the language and manner of expression, have been adapted or interpreted so as to address the conflict involving the opponents. The first ‘antichrist’ section, 2:18-27, provides a number of examples for consideration. We begin with verse 18:

“Little children, it is the last hour. And, just as you (have) heard that (the one) ‘against the Anointed’ [antíchristos] comes, even now there have come to be many (who are) ‘against the Anointed’ [antíchristoi]—(and) from this we know that it is (the) last hour.”

The chiastic parallelism of this statement demonstrates how the author can use certain literary and grammatical-syntactical means in order to apply Johannine tradition to the situation involving the opponents. Note the structure:

    • “Little children, it is the last hour
      • you have heard that antichrist comes
      • even now many antichrists have come to be
    • (thus) we know that it is the last hour.”

The framing statements regarding “the last hour” relate to the eschatological expectation of Johannine Christians. The author, and doubtless many (if not all) of his addressees, held an imminent eschatology, with a strong belief that he/they were living in the time just before the end of the current Age. Part of this expectation, apparently, was that someone (or something) called “against the Anointed” (antíchristos) would come, just before the end, during the end-time period of distress (see Dan 12:1; Mark 13:19, 24 par; Rev 1:9; 7:14, etc). The author uses the term antíchristos (a)nti/xristo$) without explanation, nor does he offer any additional information regarding this expectation, which suggests that we are dealing with a tradition that was familiar to his audience. It is not at all clear whether the term here refers to an individual human being, a spirit-being, or an impersonal (spiritual) force. Possibly all three are involved; cf. the expectation elucidated by Paul in 2 Thess 2:1-12. For more on this subject, see my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition” (the Johannine references are discussed in Part 3).

In any case, the author clearly interprets this eschatological expectation in terms of the opponents. They are manifestations of this antíchristos—indeed, through the presence and activity of the opponents, many ‘antichrists’ have come to be. These antíchristoi are human beings, and yet the author also recognizes that a distinct spirit of ‘antichrist’ is at work.

The author does not immediately explain how (or in what way) the opponents are “against the Anointed”. This is because the main point(s) at issue are only expounded progressively, throughout the three sections (2:18-27; 4:1-6; 5:4b-12) that deal most directly with the opponents’ views. What the author initially tells us about these ‘antichrists’ is that they have departed from the Johannine Community—or, at least, what the author regards as the Community of true believers:

“They went out of [ek] us, (in) that they were not of [ek] us; for, if they were of us, they would have remained [vb ménœ] with us—but (this was so) that it would be made to shine forth [i.e., be made apparent] that they are not of us.” (v. 19)

This is an example of how the distinctive Johannine theological language is applied to the situation involving the opponents. Two bits of Johannine vocabulary and style are employed. First, there is the preposition ek (“out of”), used two different ways, with a dual meaning: (a) “out of, [away] from”, in the sense of departing/leaving the group, and (b) “(part) of”, i.e., belonging to, the Community. Even more distinctive is the use of the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”), an important Johannine keyword that is used (with special theological meaning) many times throughout the Gospel and First Letter. The true believer remains—both in Christ and in the bond of Community—while false believers (such as the opponents) do not remain. The opponents, like Judas in the Gospel narrative, depart from the Community of true believers, going out into the darkness of the world (Jn 13:30; 1 Jn 4:1ff). This could simply refer to their departure from the truth (specifically with regard to their view of Jesus), or it may mean that a more tangible separation/division within the Johannine churches has taken place.

In verses 20-21, and again in verse 27, two additional Johannine features are related to the conflict. First, there is the allusion to the Spirit in verse 20:

“And (yet) you hold an anointing from the Holy (One), and have seen [i.e. know] all (thing)s.”

Though the point has been disputed by some commentators, it is best to understand the noun chrísma (“anointing”) here as a reference to the Holy Spirit. Related to this emphasis on the role of the Spirit, is the use of the noun al¢¡theia (“truth”) in verse 21:

“I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen [i.e. do not know] the truth, but (in) that you have seen [i.e. do know] it, and that every(thing) false is not of [ek] the truth.”

This would seem to reflect a fundamental spiritual (and spiritualistic) principle within the Johannine Community (see the recent article in the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”). The indwelling presence of the Spirit means that every true believer is able to know and recognize the truth, through the internal witness of the Spirit. However, the presence and activity of the opponents has created a challenge to this principle, since there are certain Johannine Christians (the opponents) who, according to the author, are spreading false teachings. Such false teachings can not come from the same Spirit of God. This is a point that the author develops more clearly in 4:1-6.

A key rhetorical strategy of the author, as noted above, is to address his audience as though they are all true believers. Being true believers, who are taught (internally) by the Spirit (who is the truth, 5:6), they will be able to recognize teaching that is false. The implication is that the readers/hearers should be able to recognize the falseness of the opponents’ teachings.

And it is the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ that is most at issue. The author provides his first summary of the matter here in vv. 22-26. The main principle is that the ‘antichrist’, one who is “against the Anointed”, denies that Jesus is the Anointed (Christ/Messiah). This is another way of saying that the opponents deny Jesus as the Anointed. However, the precise meaning of the author in this regard is not entirely clear, and has been much discussed and debated by commentators. For a relatively in-depth treatment of the issue, see my earlier three-part article “1 Jn 2:22 and the Opponents in 1 John”. I will touch on the matter again in an upcoming study within this series.

What is most important is that, for the author, the opponents’ Christology (their view of Jesus) means that they are not true believers. By effectively denying Jesus, they show that they do not possess the bond of union with either the Son of God (Jesus) or God the Father (vv. 22-23). The presence of the Spirit (i.e., the “anointing”), and its internal witness, is the ultimate source of authority for believers (see again the aforementioned article), to the extent that there is no need to be taught (externally) by another human being (v. 27). But how, then, can individual believers be certain that their understanding is true, guided by the Spirit of God, and has not been led astray by false teachings (coming from other spirits)? The author gives an initial answer to this question in verse 24:

“(As for) you, that which you (have) heard from the beginning must remain in you. If it should remain in you, that which you heard from the beginning, (then) you also shall remain in the Son and in the Father.”

The only way for the believer not to be led astray, is to remain in the true teaching (regarding Jesus Christ). The author uses the key expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s) to summarize the true teaching. It echoes his words in the prologue (1:1-4), which, in turn, seem to be inspired by the Gospel Prologue (1:1-18). The implication is that the internal witness/teaching of the Spirit will conform to the established Gospel tradition, regarding the person and work of Jesus. Any teaching which deviates from the truth of the Gospel cannot come from the Spirit of God, but from a different (false/deceiving) spirit. By remaining in the truth of the Gospel tradition, one is sure to remain united (through the Spirit) with the Father and the Son.

It is the Gospel account, rooted in historical tradition, of who Jesus is, and what he said/did during his earthly ministry, that is principally in view. The opponents, in their view of Jesus, have departed from the Gospel tradition. This, at least, is how the author of 1 John understands the matter. Their teaching denies the truth of who Jesus is, and so they are “against the Anointed”. Their teaching is a malevolent reflection of the end-time spirit of Antichrist, capable of leading many believers astray.

Next week, we will continue this study, examining how the author of 1 John further adapts the Johannine tradition and theology to address this vital conflict. We shall turn our attention to the central section of the work (2:28-3:24), isolating a number of key elements that are particularly emphasized and employed by the author.

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